What started as the organic food movement is now a $15-billion-per-year industry, filled with all the government regulation and business intrigue of any other market segment. But for winemaker Gilbert Heller, it's much more personal than that.
"It's our mission in life," says Heller, owner of Heller Estate in Carmel Valley, California. "When you put pesticides on your crops, those pesticides go into your body, and into your children's bodies, and your grandchildren's bodies. There's no reason for it. We believe in the organic lifestyle."
Heller, who has made wines for 45 years, will be in Memphis on January 18th to spread the word about organic growing and to introduce people to his wines during a dinner at Jim's Place East.
When Heller bought his vineyard in 1994, he set out to have it certified as organic -- an arduous four-year process which, he says, only half a dozen vineyards in California have completed.
"For example, we planted French plum trees, which play host to predatory wasps," he says. "The wasps eat the eggs of insects we don't want on the vines. We also bring in vineyard spiders to attack other insects."
Such is Heller's dedication that the winery steam-cleans the tires of cars and trucks that come from non-organic vineyards.
Heller uses 100 percent organically raised grapes to create his wines, and the results are no novelty product. The London Times gave favorable reviews, and The New York Times restaurant critic came for a visit after being impressed by Heller's wines at a Manhattan restaurant.
"I have been very pleased with the recent quality and quantity of organically produced wines now available," says Kevin Weaver, national wine buyer for Wild Oats Markets. "The quality of these wines is there and should be celebrated."
The dinner's host, Victor Robilio, who is president of the wine importer Victor L. Robilio Co., sees organics as playing an ever-larger part in the future wine industry.
"It's coming on strong," he says. "As grape growers find out that people want these products, you'll see a swing in that direction. Whatever the public wants -- even if it costs a little more -- the industry will provide. And the quality is good. You don't lose any thickness of the body or the bouquet; what you probably have is a less heavy taste."
Marne Anderson, Robilio's general manager, says that healthier wines make for healthier sales.
"With the organics, you get a purer concept of the grape varietal itself, rather than tainting it with herbicides," she says. "From a business perspective, there's such a glut of good-quality wines right now, it's nice to have something that has a unique selling appeal."
For Gilbert Heller, though, it's still very simple: "Organics is the future of the food industry. It costs a little more, but it's our mission in life. We're here to run a vineyard and make money, but we're also doing it the right way."